UKCAT: Aptitude or affluence?

Credit: Creative Commons - Wolfson Building, University of Glasgow

Credit: Creative Commons – Wolfson Building, University of Glasgow

With the application processes for medical and dental school becoming ever-more competitive, Kristina Cimova looks into the lucrative business of tutoring for the infamous UKCAT aptitude test.

Kristina Cimova

Getting into Medical or Dental School is notoriously difficult. Actually, let’s amend that – these days it is near enough impossible.

The ratio of applicants to free spaces at British medical schools is astounding. The Medical School Application Guide (MSAG) reported that in the 2015 application cycle there were 82,034 applicants fighting for 7,424 places, with some medical schools reporting a shocking 1000 applications for a mere 50 places. One space per roughly 11 applicants is both insane and hugely intimidating if you are a part of this pool of outstanding applicants with presumably outstanding grades and equally outstanding extracurricular activities.

So what is it that sets you apart and “sieves” the less worthy from the ones that eventually get in? Of course, there is the personal statement and, in the majority of universities, a grueling interview, but that only comes after perhaps the greatest obstacle faced by budding young doctors and dentists – the dreaded and controversial UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). This set-up is not only extremely demanding, but it also doesn’t seem to follow logical reasoning. Not only is there a limit on how many times one can sit the test (merely once a year which is infuriating for most applicants as nearly everybody inevitably scores better on their second attempt), the test itself also costs anywhere between £65 to £100.

There are bursaries available for those who may not be able to pay, however if you think that this is the only amount of money you need to have shell out, you’d be very wrong. You may, of course, be one of the rare few who can answer over 40 questions in under 22 minutes and innately read at a rate that would give The Flash a headache, however, if you are not, then you could probably do with some help to get a score that would allow you a chance to compete.

Your first instinct would probably be to confer with your parents who, upon realising the challenge faced, would most likely go pale as a sheet and realise that such a challenge goes far beyond practicing French verb conjugations or simple multiplications. Conscientious parents are probably prepared to have to help their kids along their way in academia, however preparing you for the UKCAT is far beyond the skills of anyone not especially trained for that purpose.

Naturally, in today’s highly competitive admissions era, every student expects to have to do a lot of extra work and pass tests that are not required by their school. We are all aware of the Oxbridge tests, and it is nearly regular practice today to have to do more. The Telegraph reported that nearly 90% of all Oxford applicants are required to sit additional tests, and there is no estimate as to how many times you will sit over your personal statement, rephrasing, rewriting, recycling and completely reworking it until your original thought is transformed beyond recognition.

This means that on top of still having to achieve perfect results in school and ideally also volunteering on every day other than Christmas, you’ll also be looking for a tutor specifically-tailored to tutoring the UKCAT. Needless to say, the UKCAT has become a huge business in the UK and professional companies will often charge hundreds of pounds for day-long seminars teaching exam technique and helping applicants trick the system. Even if you forgo this option and invest in private tution, it will also add up to hundreds of pounds worth of investment. Having spoken to many a UKCAT tutor privately, I learned that it is not rare to charge £30-£50 a session, depending on the timescale to the exam and the desperation of the applicant. The tutors generally take up anywhere from 20 to 50 tutees a year and if you can fit more in, the demand is definitely there!

However, at this point, the question arises as to the relevance of the UKCAT as a system of triage. If most can eventually train themselves to be able to pass well enough, isn’t the meaning of the aptitude test lost entirely? And more importantly, are the astronomical sums that parents or students themselves must pay disadvantaging those candidates who simply cannot afford to fork out for the know-how? And, most importantly, does this mean that these less privileged applicants wouldn’t eventually make as good or better a professional in their respective fields? I don’t want to take anything away from hard workers who manage to do this all by themselves and I tip my hat to all of you who managed it, as in that case, you truly had your aptitude tested. But I do wonder to what extent many of our future doctors and dentists are simply products of temporary cramming and monetary advantage, rather than possessors of the natural aptitude for decisiveness, intelligence, responsibility and kindness we want to see in our doctors.